Mind & Matter


Shanghai Diary: Building as Book

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The Korea Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo 2010. Photo by Blaine Brownell.


“This Will Kill That” is a chapter from Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame that continues to haunt architects. In the essay, Hugo presages the replacement of the building with the book as the primary didactic physical medium. Since the development of the printing press, the building has been “relieved” of its responsibility to impart knowledge to society, which has since been assumed by the versatility of the printed page.

The Korean Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo re-imagines the role of the building as a teaching medium by integrating architectural form and the form of language. Designed by Mass Studies, the structure is a 3D interpretation of the modern Han-Geul alphabet in scales ranging from centimeters to multistory volumes. Two types of cladding—white laser-cut steel composite panels and painted aluminum panels—define the exterior and interior façades, respectively. Although the alphabet characters are arranged in abstract geometric patterns, the building communicates a story that the architects describe as “sign as space and space as sign,” complete with a miniature idealized map of Seoul on the ground level.


The Korea Pavilion, facade detail. Photo by author.

Unfortunately, the continuous stream of massive numbers of visitors has led to the reconfiguration of the multifunctional collective space on the first floor, which is now filled with crowd-control fencing. Moreover, the interior exhibits bear no relation to the “sign as space” concept, which is a missed opportunity. In summary, however, the Korean Pavilion is a wonderfully creative essay on the language of space and the space of language, and demonstrates the extent to which verbal and visual literacy are interconnected.




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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.